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Tell me a story: top tips for writing engaging scientific content

Posted by BioStrata Team on 28-Oct-2014 10:06:05

Science writing
Anyone can write content, but writing great content that is engaging, provocative and memorable can be more of a challenge, especially when it comes to communicating detailed topics like those revolving around science. However, with a few simple rules in mind, you can start to develop content that people will want to read – which quickly turns into content people want to share.

Do your homework

The secret to good writing is a familiarity with the subject. In order to turn a complex topic into a concise, insightful and digestible piece that engages the reader, you’re going to have to do a significant amount of reading to ensure you understand what you’ll be writing about. I’m not saying that you need to become a leading expert in the field, but you should be able to put down around a page of information on your chosen topic without continually referring to multiple sources. It’s also important that you check your facts and make sure that you use and cite reputable sources; I recommend you check those facts yourself – more than once. Probably more than any other target audience, scientists will be quick to pounce on any inaccurate claims!

Keep it simple

This may initially seem to contradict my point about the need for extensive research, but maintaining the correct degree of simplicity with enough complexity to provide value for the reader is a delicate balancing act. Attempting to sum up a story that has been the focus of lifelong scientific research in a few short sentences sometimes just isn’t possible. Instead, you have to take the knowledge that you’ve acquired while reading up on the subject, decide which parts are essential for your story, and discard the rest. The more work you’ve invested in your initial research, the better equipped you’ll be at deciding what’s important, and what can be cut.

It’s also important to apply our rule of simplicity to language. Purposely restricting your vocabulary isn’t necessarily required, but avoiding needlessly ‘wordy’ sentences and phrases will keep more people reading your work. Using metaphors for example can be a great way to get a difficult concept across to a reader. However, ensure your metaphors are crystal clear and if in doubt, heed the words of George Orwell and ‘use metaphors sparingly’!

At the end, ask yourself, ‘Could a person with no prior knowledge of this topic read, understand and enjoy this article?’ If the answer is yes, your work is done! If not, you may have to rethink either how well you actually know the subject, or how well you’ve described it.

Find your voice

Science writing in the past has – rather unfairly – been accused of being dull and dry. While this can be due to the subject of the article, more often than not it’s down to style. That’s right, I’m talking about the dreaded third person narrative using the passive voice. The debate on active versus passive voice is one that I’m sure will continue to rage forever, and to be fair, both have their place. The classic passive voice found in most scientific journals is very prone to introducing excessive ambiguity and complexity. J. Kirkman summarizes this nicely:

"If we accept the premise that all scientific papers must be passive and impersonal, inevitably we find ourselves tempted to use these 'carrier verbs'. If we will not write:
'we sampled the ions from the plasma by'
'I removed the coating with alcohol'
'we did not inspect the burners regularly'
we can write in simple passive form:
'the ions from the plasma were sampled by'
'the coating was removed with alcohol'
'the burners were not inspected regularly'.
But it is tempting to take a further step and expand these statements to:
'ion sampling from the plasma was achieved by'
'removal of the coating was effected by the application of alcohol'
'regular inspections of the burners were not carried out'.
In taking this extra step we not only change the verb forms from active to passive, but also introduce colourless 'general purpose' verbs 'carrying' abstract nouns. We no longer sample, remove and inspect; we achieve, effect and carry out."

The active voice describes what the scientists did, from the scientist’s perspective, allowing a reader to form a natural connection with the content. In contrast to this, using the passive voice tends to displace the reader from the content; the events happened elsewhere, in the past, by an unspecified person. This quickly disconnects the readers and often makes the passage less interesting to read.

Some publications will specify that the content must be in the passive or third person voice, in which case you’ll have to work hard at ensuring your sentences have enough clarity. However, if possible, I would recommend using the active voice if you want to successfully engage with your readers. For an interesting examination of passive versus active voice, have a look at this selection of notes on the subject, put together by B. Cousins at UCLA.

Don’t exaggerate

Science has its share of awe-inspiring stories that can have huge ramifications on the future of society, from technological innovations to medical breakthroughs. However, the vast majority of science is not revolutionary. Instead, it’s comprised of many years of routine work upon which great discoveries are built. If your story isn’t a ‘jaw-dropper’, don’t pretend that it is. By all means go ahead and write enticing headlines, but stick to the truth; nobody will read your second article if they feel they’ve been duped after your first one. A skilled writer can provide the necessary context to ensure a story remains enticing, without needing to overplay its significance.

Be the storyteller

Ultimately, writing engaging content is about telling a story. You need to bring the reader in and allow them to connect with your article in some way – they need to have empathy for any of the characters you introduce and they need to be inspired by the topic you’re trying to share. Your ability to turn a potentially dry topic into an interesting story is what will keep people reading your work. An article about the discovery of a new protein structure with a novel antigen-binding domain may bring in a few specialist readers but otherwise it could fall well short of its potential. However, a story about the five-year struggle of a group of scientists trying to deduce the structure of a protein that has implications for medical research has a much broader appeal. Perhaps more importantly, people remember a story with a strong narrative flow much better than they do a list of facts.

Putting it all together

To write engaging content you have to take the reader on a journey. You have to lead them through the story, pointing out interesting sights and explaining difficult concepts along the way. The reader should come away feeling entertained and informed without being patronised. Striking that balance takes practice, but keeping these simple rules in mind will hopefully send you down the right path to writing great scientific copy!


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